Tips to Control Arena Dust

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There are many things horse owners do to make riding more pleasant and/or safer for themselves and their horses, such as riding early in the day when it is hot or using calks when the footing is bad. But what can you do for the daily problem of the dust that is raised each time you ride in your indoor or outdoor arena?

Here are some startling facts about dust, and some tips to help you solve the problem for you, and your horses.

First you need to understand that dust is a problem. Imagine inhaling all the dust and debris from your horse arena as you and your horse work. On average, a resting horse inhales 150 liters of air per minute. Add in strenuous exercise and your horse could realistically suck in 10 times that volume of arena dust. If your horse is older or has a history of respiratory infections or heaves, he could be even more susceptible to airway problems when breathing in airborne arena dust and dirt.

Here are tips, from very simple and inexpensive to more technical solutions.

Dust to Dust

It's possible your arena is actually a flat spot in your pasture, or that your arena footing is made up of the existing soil or sod. Not a bad place to start in terms of dust control. If you have plans for adding footing, either all at once or over time, you're a step ahead in terms of choosing a low-dust footing, rather than dealing with a dusty footing already in place. If you're dealing with existing dusty footing, you have choices to help that situation, too.

Before you can start to control dust, you have to understand where it comes from. Basically, dust is made up of small particles that float or fly through the air because they aren't heavy enough to stay grounded.

Sand is a traditional footing in many regions, especially since it's usually a naturally abundant product. However, depending on where you live, the word "sand" can mean different things. For example, sand derived from the beach is very different in texture and content than glacial sand. What's contained in that sand also plays a role in how much dust a footing will produce.

Wayne Gregory, general manager of Footing Unlimited in Chicago, points to four causes of dust:

  1. Footing containing lightweight particles, such as unwashed sand that contains bits of clay, silt or broken-down organic (naturally occurring) materials. "Imagine the particles of sand are the size of a basketball," says Gregory. "In comparison, particles of clay are the size of a pinhead." So, the small bits float into the air, causing dust.
  2. Sand pulverized by use. Over time, the weight and concussion of the horse's hooves on the sand will break individual grains into smaller particles, which then become dust.
  3. The arena base, usually made of clay or stone dust, begins to rise through the footing, becoming dust.
  4. Manure, a fragile organic material left in the arena, gets broken down into small particles that easily go airborne. To protect you and your horse, keep a manure fork and wheelbarrow close by, and scoop any poop left in the arena after your ride. Then roll it off to your compost bin.

Based on what makes up dust, the basic way we control it is by adding weight to small particles, which then keeps them from floating into the air.

Water Ways

Water is the most innocuous, least expensive and simplest way to add weight to footing and prevent dust, and it's the method most of us use. What horse show or clinic doesn't stop midday for the water truck to make a pass around the arena? It isn't, however, a perfect solution.

At home, a water truck most likely isn't an option for your dust control efforts. Instead, you'll probably rely on sprinklers or hand-watering with a spray nozzle. That means a lot of time and energy invested in this daily project. For indoor arenas, it might mean commercial installation of automatic sprinklers or drip systems.

Although using water means not applying chemicals that could potentially damage the environment, it does mean using a natural resource that in some areas is scarce. It may be challenging, too, to get the soil/water recipe just right for riding. Adding too little water to your arena leads to a dust cloud after a couple of laps, while over-watering can cause a slippery, mucky and potentially dangerous mess.

The most efficient way to water an arena starts with an initial deep watering that permeates through the entire footing and down to the arena's base layer. For this crucial and often-missed step, Gregory recommends timing your sprinklers in two-minute increments. Turn off the water and dig into the footing to see how far the water has gone. If it hasn't reached the base, turn the water on again for another two minutes, then check again.

Once the entire footing is saturated with water--but not muddy or with standing puddles--you've properly conditioned the surface footing. Now, continue watering daily to keep the footing moist and the dust down. This should take less time and water than your initial application.

Here are several things you can do to help keep the dust in check:

  • Invest in a low-dust footing that won't break down quickly under hoof.
  • Select environmentally friendly dust-control products.
  • Water mornings and evenings, and use landscaping to prevent evaporation.
  • Be considerate of your neighbors, who may bare the brunt of your dust making.
  • Pick manure out of your arena after each ride to prevent fine particles from turning into added dust.

Reducing Evaporation

Once you get the arena moist, you start fighting evaporation, which will dry out your footing.

Plan on watering your arena in the morning and/or evening, but not during the heat of midday. "You want to give the water a chance to soak in before it gets warm and starts evaporating," Gregory says. "Basically, follow the same guidelines you'd use to water your lawn." Doing so will allow the water to saturate the soil or sand and helps save water.

Wind is another culprit in evaporating water and drying out arena footing. It literally blows the water away. For outdoor arenas, Gregory recommends planting hedges and plants around your arena's perimeter to help shade the footing during the day and protect it from the wind. "You'll be surprised by how much a wind-break will reduce the amount of water you use to keep dust down," he observes.

The next step to water retention is using additives designed to retain moisture in the footing. The following are a few options:

Salt

Cost: $0.10-$0.15 per square foot

Salt works as a moisture magnet. Salt also lowers freezing temperature, helping keep your indoor arena footing from freezing in winter. To work effectively, salt is best used in humid climates.

Gregory recommends magnesium chloride as the least corrosive, and thus best, salt option for arenas. It takes only 2 to 4 ounces per square foot to make a difference. The amount is considered minuscule, when compared to the 30 pounds of footing that makes up each square foot of arena space. Even with that in mind, Gregory stresses that less is more when it comes to using salt. Use too much, and the salt could dry out your horse's hooves and damage your tack, boots and clothing.

In outdoor arenas in rainy places, salt can wash away in a storm.

Wood

Cost: $0.15-$0.25 per square foot

Hogfuel, wood chips or shavings are often byproducts in areas with a local timber industry. These organic products soak up water likes thousands of little sponges, helping retain moisture in footing after deep watering. Unfortunately, when dry, wood breaks down quickly, posing the same particle-providing problem as manure, which creates more dust in the long run.

Textile fibers

Cost: $0.15-$0.25 per square foot

Using fabric fibers in arenas is a European import, which is often generically referred to as "Eurofelt." These bits of fiber, which are mostly synthetics such as polyester or blends, absorb water and help maintain moisture content when mixed with sand.

Most textile fibers added to arenas are made from recycled materials. Some are pre-consumer, meaning they're made of materials leftover from manufacturing other products. Post-consumer materials are made from materials that have made their way out into the world as a different product. Gregory recommends going with the pre-consumer fibers to ensure the health and safety of you, your animals and your investment.

"Think of the difference between fibers made out of leftover carpet from a factory and those from a carpet pulled out of a home," he says. "You don't know what the carpet out of the house has been exposed to."

Other Options

Maybe water doesn't work for you. You either have limited access to water, you have an indoor arena that isn't conducive to watering, or you want to keep dust down in the winter. Here are some additional dust-control solutions for you.

Rubber

Cost: $2.50 per square foot (or more)

Shredded or crumb rubber is usually derived from car tires or other rubber products, such as the soles of tennis shoes. The bounce of rubber adds a nice spring to a footing, although its added traction isn't ideal for horses that are sliding or spinning.

Rubber, when mixed with sand, makes a footing more porous, which allows water to saturate the footing. But, for the same reason, it also causes water to evaporate more quickly. So, in the case of dust prevention, water and rubber don't mix, says Gregory. However, rubber footing does reduce the amount of hoof concussion on sand, meaning it breaks down more slowly and is less likely to become dust in the long term.

Applications

Cost: $0.50 per square foot or more

Arena applications come in two types, those that aggregate the footing and those that coat the individual grains of footing. These are made of a variety of compounds, including tree-based, plant-based and petroleum oils. Depending on the product, you can either self-apply, or have a professional application.

Aggregate applications bind individual pieces of footing, making the whole heavier than its parts. Treatments that coat individual grains of sand or pieces of footing make each piece heavier. Both either reduce or eliminate watering, although they do break down over time. Some water-solvent products should not be watered or used outside.

The market is flooded with different application products, so make sure to ask your supplier about the environmental and health-related risks of the arena treatment.

Wax-coated sand

Cost: $5-$6 per square foot

Wax-coated sand is exactly what it sounds like. Individual grains of washed sand are coated, and thus weighted, with wax. This is a custom-installed footing and doesn't require additional water. Gregory warns, however, that the wax isn't ideal for hot climates, such as those in southern California, Arizona or the southern states.

Polymer-coated sand

Cost: $5-$7 per square foot

This high-end footing feels like riding or walking in a pillow of squishy beads. Which makes sense, because each individual grain of sand is coated with a plastic polymer product. The coating is laminated on to the sand using a heat process, which makes it permanent. "It's like the process used to make your driver's license," Gregory relates. The extra weight keeps sand grounded and your arena dust free.

Final Notes

Gregory equates mixing arena footing to baking a cake--too much of the wrong ingredient and you'll ruin the whole thing. Measure it correctly and you'll have the perfect recipe for dust-free footing. Invest some time, do your research, and work within your budget. No matter how you suppress dust in your arena, you and your horse will be happier and healthier during and after your ride.